Just in case the title of this post scares people off I should quickly state the following: I am not a vegetarian, nor is this blog post about to try to convince its dear readers to become vegetarian. I am a lover of food: if I were a Roman I would pray to Edesia, the goddess of feasting; if I were on death row, I would spend ten long years meticulously planning the perfect final meal to the dismay of the Texas prison authorities; if I were a part of the body I would be the tongue; if I had a coat of arms it would carry the emblems of a big fat pie, some chop sticks and a morel; if I worked for Chanel, I would launch a his/hers fragrance called Eau de Tartufe, black truffles for men, white for women. Bloody hell I am starting to sound like Rudyard Kipling. Whom, incidentally, I would eat first if I were a cannibal.*
But despite my overwhelming commitment to fine dining, I am not a hedonist. That is to say, I think that ethical values come before aesthetics. Perhaps they are interrelated but hey let’s not get bogged down just yet. The overwhelming majority of people directly use animals for food, as companions, or clothing, indirectly via vivisection-tested medicines, and so on. But very few of us spend as much effort looking into the treatment of those animals as we do looking up the Jamie Oliver recipe for Eazy-Peazy Bangaz and MASH with a Lahvely red-woin Jooo.
Now I would not suggest that it is the duty of the moral, civilized human being to launch their own exhaustive fact-finding mission into animal welfare. But there are a few questions you can ask yourself. For example: Do you think that an animal, even if you believe it to be a lower order of consciousness, deserves the right to live a life free from unnecessary suffering? Do animals have the right to live a life beyond that of a mere commodity, even if their bodies end up being used as such? Does mankind have an automatic right to use other species simply because it is more powerful? Is might really right? If you think you do not care one way or the other or you would rather not know, does deliberate ignorance (of any subject) mean you cannot call yourself a good person?
Different people will answer in different ways of course. Vegans believe that mankind’s relationship with animals should not reflect one of mastery in any way, and as a result they will not use animals for food, clothing, entertainment, companionship etc. This view is based upon a belief in an existential equivalence of all animals. However, this is something that many people will find hard to accept. Perhaps some don’t want to face difficult questions about pain or consciousness. But some vegans controversially draw a parallel between society’s use of animals and the Nazis’ attitude towards the Jews: “they are a lower order of life, so we can do what we please with them, and not feel bad about it”. I would advise any vegans reading this to be EXTREMELY careful where they make this argument because if misconstrued it could cause some people to be not just angry but very upset indeed. On a curious side note, the Nazis brought in laws banning vivisection and protecting animal welfare, apparently as an attack on what they deemed to be Jewish sciences and Kosher slaughtering methods. Although Hitler did not seem to take much notice when he trialled poison gas on his dogs..
I have a real respect for vegans. I personally think there are logical difficulties with being only an ethical vegetarian: what is the difference between eating meat and wearing leather, or eating battery-chicken eggs? If you are going to make an ethical point, you have to be consistent. But I truly abhor the dismissive usage of vegetarians and vegans in the media. You see Clarkson and Ramsey laughing about them as though they are idiots. A claim no-one would ever level at those two of course. Isn’t there enough complacency in our society already before we criticise others for living their lives in a way which seems right to them?
My own personal view is that animals are conscious, feel emotions, and have their own unique perspectives on the world formulated from their different senses and experiences from humans. But I cannot extend to them a recognition of the same order of intelligence as humans. If you did then would you not have to expect them to act morally responsibly as befits their intelligence? An animal would be culpable for theft, murder, rape and all of the other things which make up the bloody daily workings of nature. This would be patently ridiculous, and a somewhat awkward drain on police resources and the judicial system. Not to mention prison overcrowding. Anyway… I cannot see the absolute difference between a human killing an animal for its ends and a lion, killer whale, spider, dog, cat, skylark, or jabberwocky doing the same. Death is part of life, and I can accept that. If you cannot then you should not.
My problem is with the way in which humans use animals. Now if you accept that it is natural to use animals for food, clothing, labour on farms and the rest but they are capable of suffering too, do you think that humans have a responsibility to treat these animals with compassion and some concern for their interests? If an animal is going to give up its life, against its will, for you, should we not make sure that while it is alive it is happy? And when it dies it feels no pain or fear?
We are lucky. It is easy to do this. For many years there have been various programmes and trading standards schemes set up in Britain set up so that we can quickly and conveniently select meat that has been produced with the welfare of the animal in mind. It is surprising, but Waitrose started its farm assurance scheme way back in the eighties. Red Tractor marked and free range lines of meat are widely available, and many supermarkets stock fewer battery than free range eggs. It is so easy to grab the first pack of pork chops you see on the shelf. It only costs a little more for us, but for the animal you are going to enjoy eating it is the difference between living in a crowded factory-barn as a mere commodity, or living in green fields, roaming around, pooing just where it likes.
Oh and if you really think there is no moral element to humans using animals, then how about this argument for only eating free range meat: it tastes like real meat, it tastes really good, not like the regular muck they flog off to you and stick in McBurgers. Your taste buds will show you the way.
*I would clearly not as he has been dead for many, many years